Sure, Kyrie Irving went to the Dallas Mavericks, and sure, the Brooklyn Nets then continued the controlled demolition of their failed superteam by trading Kevin Durant to the Phoenix Suns. Sure, the Los Angeles Lakers ended their famed Pat Beverley era, the biggest news around that franchise this week. But in its way, the real star of this week’s NBA trade deadline run-up was not any of those players, but something that is not yet a player at all: a second-round draft pick.
NBA second-round draft picks are not, to most of us, so exciting. There are good players to be found in the back half of the NBA draft, to be sure. Two of the game’s current era-defining players—Nikola Jokić and Draymond Green—were second-rounders. But they’re the exceptions. A second-round pick is a lottery ticket. Let’s use the example of the 2018 draft, whose remaining players are approaching five years in the NBA: Of the 30 players taken, there are mostly guys who have turned out to be around replacement level or have washed out of the league altogether. A small handful became rock-solid contributors, like point guard Jalen Brunson, who just signed a big contract with the New York Knicks, and his teammate Mitchell Robinson, a 7-foot center. The group features no All-Stars, though Brunson had a great case this year.
But to NBA teams making trades this winter, second-rounders have been very exciting. Teams have traded at least 40 second-round picks since the start of January, based on a tracker from the league. These picks run out as far as the 2029 draft. (In several cases, the same pick has now changed hands multiple times. I’m giving a total count of how many times a second-round pick went from one team to another.) As part of a four-team series of deals that included the Durant swap, the Milwaukee Bucks gave up five second-rounders to get forward Jae Crowder from the Suns. In a different deal, the Portland Trail Blazers got five second-round picks (and guard Kevin Knox) for guard Gary Payton II, who went back to his old team, the Golden State Warriors.
There are many attempts in the public domain, and more attempts that teams hold internally, to attach precise values to unmade draft picks. A second-round pick is not that valuable, but in infinite supply, second-rounders could be infinitely valuable. Regrettably, there is not an infinite supply of these picks, and trades aren’t made in a vacuum. If league rules allowed it, could you trade 80 second-round picks for Giannis Antetokounmpo? What’s the meaning of life? What really is basketball? Getting five second-round picks for Gary Payton II is a toned-down manifestation of the same analysis. Some of the NBA’s second-rounder feeding frenzy this winter is just that: Teams saw enough value in future second-round picks to accept high quantities of them in exchange for current players or other future picks.
But a bit more is going on, as one front-office person explained when I incredulously asked on Thursday what the deal was with all these second-round picks. (I granted anonymity to get a good, frank picture of how this all works.) The NBA’s roster management rules are complicated, and second-round picks, in addition to offering a theoretical shot at a good player, are a sort of power-up asset for the NBA bean counters and managers responsible for their team’s costs. So while second-rounders aren’t necessarily any more exciting to an NBA general manager than they are to you or me, they are appealing as what some in the league would call “trade lubricants.” A second-rounder is unlikely to change a team’s fortunes on its own, but it’s critical to powering the NBA’s transaction machine.
For starters: Trading athletes is difficult work. Two players might have similar skills and traits, but if one is younger and less expensive, his team will not want a similar player who is older and costlier. Enter draft picks as a value-balancing mechanism to make everyone feel comfortable doing deals. But first-rounders are better than second-rounders, and a bunch of good teams (or teams trying to get good) have already spent years trading first-rounders for good players who can help them immediately. This happens all the time. Last offseason, the Cleveland Cavaliers included three of them (and a couple more rights to swap picks) in a deal with the Utah Jazz for Donovan Mitchell. The Minnesota Timberwolves put four first-rounders (and a pick swap) in a deal for Mitchell’s old teammate Rudy Gobert. The Durant-to-Phoenix deal on Thursday involved a grab bag of first-rounders. Irving, on an expiring contract and as a huge pain, brought a first-rounder back to the Nets. You see the issue: Teams that are looking to contend in the near term only have so many first-rounders they can trade. Something else needs to grease deals.
So we have second-rounders, the easiest remaining way for NBA executives to get each other to a point of “Sure, that works fine” when they’re swapping players. Simple supply and demand.
NBA rules are also playing a part, which is why the front-office person took pains to emphasize that the second-rounder bonanza was multifaceted in origin. In addition to tightening up trade values and serving as an asset of last resort with first-rounders already gone, second-round picks have become a marginal but useful expense management tool for teams.
The NBA has different salary minimums for rookies and players with varying years of league experience. While those players receive what the union-negotiated minimums say they receive, their contracts can count differently for purposes of both the salary cap and the luxury tax threshold that some teams (nine or so, right now) must pay for having an expensive roster. A player whom a team takes in the second round typically earns the rookie minimum contract and only counts for that much toward the luxury tax and salary cap. But an undrafted rookie, whose actual contract will also be for the rookie minimum, counts for a higher amount against the luxury tax threshold than a drafted one does. That player counts the same amount toward the luxury tax as if he’s been in the NBA for two seasons, at which point the salary minimum is higher. The same system allows teams to pay more expensive veterans a higher minimum salary but count them at a lower minimum in the realm of the luxury tax (and the salary cap). The bottom line is that drafting more rookies in the second round, rather than signing them outside the draft, is a way for teams to save money on the league’s luxury tax.
This confusing scheme has a reason behind it: The NBA’s players union wants teams to be encouraged to spend money on veteran players without the cap or tax scaring them off, and they are encouraged to invest in veterans when an undrafted rookie costs a team a similar dollar amount as a veteran does, in luxury-tax terms. The system mitigates cost-savings advantages that undrafted rookies have over longtime players, who become a lighter burden against the luxury tax and salary cap. (Remember, the advantage for drafted rookies over undrafted ones is only about the tax, not the cap.)
So, second-round picks have gained value in one other way: Teams can use them to stock the end of their bench with players who do less than veterans or undrafted rookies to bring their team toward a huge luxury tax bill. Teams have to fill out their rosters some way or another, and second-rounders help them do it without heightening their financial liabilities. It’s not the reason second-rounders are so en vogue as trade chips, but it’s a contributor. Sometimes teams have been aggressive about it. A few years ago, the Bucks did it, grabbing a couple of second-round picks, rostering them at a low luxury tax hit, and saving on the margins as they went on their way.
A second-round pick is, in one way, worth very little. A team might turn it into a player it really wants to have around, but it probably won’t, and the chances of landing a franchise-changing talent with that pick are remote. But second-round picks help general managers do the thing they love most (make trades to optimize their basketball teams), and they improve team owners’ chances of doing the thing they love most (saving a few dollars on labor). A second-round pick is nothing. A second-round pick is everything. All hail the second-round pick.